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A theory of assessment from Teacher of the Year Topher Kandik - Part 1My personal theory of assessment is kind of a blend between Hemingway’s famous quote on writing and Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths:

  • Re: Hemingway. He says the dignity of movement of an iceberg is that it is only ⅛ above water. If writers know what they are doing, then they may omit things, and still have the same effect as if they were stated. In other words, the hard work is often done below the surface… in this context, below the surface may mean that assessment may be done in a less formally traditional manner.
  • Re: Borges. His famous postmodern novel tells of a seemingly endless series of twists and turns that often diverge and converge with different results depending on the context. This is the tale of assessment. Each set of results must be read individually to make meaning for its specific set of circumstances.

Let me be careful. I am not really a theory guy, so let me state these ideas in real terms. I am not saying (with Hemingway) that you only do ⅛ of the assessment, but only about ⅛ (or some small amount) should be apparent to the student. There is real danger of assessment fatigue that consists of lack of engagement or lack of understanding of why students are learning. We do a disservice to our young people when we emphasize how they do on tests over how they do. Period.

So, what does this mean in reality?

First, in my practice, I acknowledge that there is a time and a place for large scale assessment. I don’t spend time prepping for these tests because I believe that often undue importance is placed on them. I don’t think students necessarily directly benefit from these assessments, so I trust that a rigorous curriculum taught with high expectations will be the best preparation. And then I try to do that.

My experience has borne this theory out (such as it is). My 10th grade students at the SEED School of Washington, DC have had the highest scores on PARCC testing for any non-application school in DC for the two years we have been using that assessment. In other words, no school with open applications has done better than mine on the PARCC testing in DC. Are the scores where I would like them to be? No. Not even close. But I am proud that my students have been leaders in the city for assessment scores… And last year I wasn’t even with them during the testing because I was at the White House for Washington Week with my fellow Teachers of the Year. Believe it or not, being with my students makes a difference.

These are high-stakes tests, and while they are necessary, they do not drive my teaching. I don’t believe they drive good teaching at all, but I have made my peace with them. They would be, in Hemingway’s theory, the tip of the iceberg–above the surface. Right below this level, but still above water are the formative and summative assessments I give (including performance assessments, which I love). For each text we read, I give formative written assessments to measure progress on vocabulary, characters and plot, literary terms and concepts, writing, etc. After we have finished each book, we take a summative test and they do a performance-based assessment. For Things Fall Apart, for example, they create eulogies for Okonkwo from the perspective of a different character in the book. For Oedipus Rex, they create an opening statement that prosecutes or defends Oedipus in a trial of parricide, regicide, and incest. The idea is to engage students with the themes and books while engaging other skills as well.

I use these more formal assessments as tools to gauge mastery in many different areas. This is where the garden begins forking. I am looking for so much data that is not directly reported in the scores for these assessments. Do students know what is going on in the book? Are students able to communicate their answers clearly in standard English? Can they unpack challenging prompts and apply their knowledge? Can they extend the ideas of the text beyond the text? Can they work in a time-sensitive fashion toward a goal?

Topher Kandik is a guest contributor to this week’s blog. He is an Upper School English teacher at SEED Public Charter School and the 2016 Teacher of the Year for Washington, DC.

Check back next week when Topher Kandik answers these questions in Part 2 of his Theory of Assessment.